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U.S. ENTERS THE SEARCH FOR MISSING RELIEF WORKER IN CHECHNYA AS FOUNDATION APPEALS FOR HELP

The president of the Soros Foundation appealed for help Friday in finding a well-known American disaster relief worker who has disappeared in Chechnya and is feared dead or held captive.

Frederick C. Cuny, a 50-year-old specialist in disaster relief who has worked in more than 30 war zones from Biafra to Bosnia, has not been heard from directly since March 31.Friends and colleagues have been searching for the Texan since he failed to resurface in time to deliver a speech at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif., on April 8. Cuny had been advising the Soros Foundation on how best to help victims of the war in Chechnya.

The U.S. State Department, reversing its earlier position that the Russian government could handle the search alone, said it is dispatching two people from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to Chechnya this weekend to help look for Cuny.

The search for Cuny comes amid signs that Russian officials may be seeking a way to halt hostilities in Chechnya before May 9, when world leaders who are growing increasingly anxious over the brutality of the 41/2-month-old war are scheduled to visit Moscow to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany.

In a written message read on Chechen television, Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin announced Friday that Russia is ready to negotiate with Chechen field commanders with no preconditions.

Cuny probably passed through the southwestern village of Bamut on his way to eastern Chechnya, Soros Foundation President Aryeh Neier told a news conference in Moscow on Friday.

Neier said the only reports he has received have been second- and third-hand, contradictory and unconfirmed. Some alleged that Cuny was being held prisoner by Chechen forces, others that he was a Russian captive. But Neier said he had no reliable news of Cuny, his translator or the two Russian doctors who disappeared along with them.

The doctors were working out of a special hospital the Soros Foundation had set up in Sleptsovsk, just over Chechnya's western borders, but traveled into the war-torn republic to treat the wounded there, Neier said. Cuny and his translator were traveling with them, according to radio messages the doctors sent, the last one on April 9.

Their car was found parked in Bamut, but it was unclear whether they had been forced out of it or voluntarily abandoned it for sturdier transportation to travel deeper into the muddy combat zone, Neier said.

The Russian counterintelligence service has publicly accused the Soros Foundation, the brainchild of Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros, of espionage, calling its gift of $100 million to support impoverished Russian scientists merely a cover. The Russian science ministry apologized to Soros, but the intelligence agency never retracted the charge. Cuny was employed as a Soros consultant.

The Soros Foundation asked the U.S. Embassy for help locating Cuny on April 9. It also asked the Pentagon and the FBI to forward the request to their Russian contacts. Neier said Russian officials contacted in Moscow were well-briefed and helpful.